How do i report sexual abuse
(last revised 1/22/2015) kw: repressed false memory syndrome; repressed false memory syndrome; repressed false memory syndrome; child abuse, child abuse
Amnesia for childhood sexual abuse is a condition.
The existence of this condition is beyond dispute.
Repression is merely one explanation
often a confusing and misleading one
for what causes the condition of amnesia.
Some people sexually abused in childhood
will have periods of amnesia for their abuse,
followed by experiences of delayed recall.
(Based on published research. See below.)
Notes on Usage & Presentation
This is a very large individual Web page (over 50 printed pages). Please be patient as it loads. For your convenience, I suggest that you begin by checking out the Table of Contents, then scrolling down to read the Preface, Words of Caution, and Introduction. If you try to follow links in the Table of Contents before the page has fully loaded, you will have to reload it.
I have highlighted in red those passages which particularly fit with my goals. These do not correspond to emphases in the original texts. Again, this is a very large page, and the highlights can be used for browsing too. Table of Contents Preface - Author Info. & Aims for this Page Words of Caution I - Caveats on Research Evidence, Theory & Controversy Words of Caution II - Personal Concerns & Questions About Your Memories? Introduction: Empirical Evidence, Psychological Constructs & Scientific Progress The Journal of Psychiatry and Law - 1996 Review; Perpetrator Confessions Linda Meyer Williams - Great Research (prospective, community sample) Cathy Spatz Widom - Great Research (prospective, large sample, gender effects) Diana Elliott - Great Research (random national sample, various traumas) Bessel van der Kolk - Traumatic Memories & Dissociation; 4 Papers on Web Judith Lewis Herman - Verified Memories; Social Contexts; Dissociation Ross Cheit - Recovered Memory Project Archive of Corroborated Cases Elizabeth Loftus - What the Popular Media Haven't Reported Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition
- Dissociative Amnesia is an Established Psychiatric Diagnosis Journal of Traumatic Stress - Special Issue: Traumatic Memory Research John Briere - Two Research Studies Shirley Feldman-Summers - Study of Therapists; Verified Memories Jennifer Freyd - Betrayal of Children & Memory Loss Chris Brewin - Explanations Based on Cognitive Science Cynthia Bowman & Elizabeth Mertz - Legal Argument & Scientific Review Judge Edward Harrington, U.S. District Court - Recovered Memory Ruling Selected Books on Recovered & Traumatic Memories Media Coverage of Recovered Memories - Sources of Bias & Deceptiveness Additional Resources - Including Articles & Web Resources
I am a researcher and therapist with a doctorate (Ph.D.) in clinical psychology. I am a licensed clinical psychologist, and for nearly 20 years I have been a therapist to men and women abused in childhood, providing individual and group treatment. I have studied the characteristics of traumatic memories and the effects of psychological trauma on biological systems involved in emotion regulation. My collaborators include Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a leader in the psychological trauma field at The Trauma Center and Boston University. I am an independent consultant, part-time Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and consultant on psychological trauma at the Outpatient Addictions Service of the Cambridge Health Alliance. The contents of this page reflect my level of experience and expertise, as well as opinions I have formed over the years. I have published this page to direct people to quality scholarly work on traumatic memory, especially:
Research and theoretical works by qualified specialists who increasingly agree that: a) traumatic and nontraumatic memories have some different characteristics; b) the construct of "dissociation" best explains many traumatic memories, e.g. those involving fragmentary sensations and feelings which are disconnected from verbal narratives, and associated with amnesia and delayed recall. These works show that making claims about traumatic memory based on generalizations from research on nontraumatic memory, and focusing on the constructs of "repression" and "repressed memory," can often be confusing distractions and misleading tactics.
- Research evidence showing that it is NOT RARE for people who were sexually abused in childhood to experience amnesia and delayed recall for the abuse. This body of work shows that claims to the contrary are contradicted by scientific evidence.
To accomplish these two goals, this page does not need to be comprehensive, nor up-to-date on the latest research - though I will occassionally make additions, and am always open to suggestions.
Before proceeding, I want to acknowledge some very important issues that this page, with its limited goals related to recovered memories and dissociation, does not address, except in passing. Please read every item and the entire list very carefully.
Issues not addressed on this page:
This process of reconstruction is never random, and is always influenced by factors internal and external to the person attempting accurate recall. There is strong evidence that people can sincerely believe they have recovered a memory or memories of abuse by a particular person, but actually be mistaken. There is strong evidence that such memories have led to accusations about particular events that never happened and accusations of people who never committed such acts. In some cases mistaken memories and accusations have caused extraordinary pain and damage to individuals and families. One of the preventable causes of these tragedies is incompetence by therapists, who sometimes contribute to the creation of false memories and/or believe them without good reason. Currently, there are no reliable statistics on the occurences listed as numbers 3 through 6 above. Along these lines, see two articles by Dr. Kenneth Pope: "Questioning Claims About the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic," and "Science as Careful Questioning: Are Claims of a False Memory Syndrome Epidemic Based on Empirical Evidence?" (For more information about these articles and online ordering of copies, follow the link to Pope's site in the "Additional Resources" section of this page.) Most of these issues are addressed at the Web site of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. I do not endorse that organization, their Web site, nor their treatment of these issues, which is clearly extreme in many ways. But I do encourage you to consider all positions, to contrast what you learn here with the materials presented at the FMSF site, and to come to your own conclusions.
- Every instance of recall is a process of reconstruction, and therefore involves some degree of distortion.
Finally, I strongly encourage you to seek out and read some of the scholarly works cited below. These will help you to make your own judgements rather than relying on what you hear or read in the popular media, or what is available on the Internet including this page. It is my aim and hope, however, that reading this page will give you powerful knowledge and tools for thinking more critically about whatever else you hear and read on this topic.
Words of Caution I
All statistics and interpretations of these phenomena are disputed by some experts. Complex and subtle scientific issues are involved, including criticisms of research methods and theory-based interpretations of research findings and clinical observations. The most controversial issues are:
- Research and theories about amnesia and delayed recall for childhood sexual abuse are extremely controversial.
How do we understand the evidence? For example, do people "simply forget" sexual abuse just as they might temporarily forget any other unpleasant experience, or are different brain mechanisms and psychological defensive processes involved? Emotions and moral commitments influence everyone's reasoning and judgement to some extent. Even experts who claim to be without bias are fooling themselves or trying to fool you. The presentation of research, statistics and theories on this page is influenced by my values, my informed opinions, and my experiences as a therapist and researcher over the past 20 years.
- How common are amnesia and delayed recall for sexual abuse experiences?
Words of Caution II - Personal Concerns & Questions
You may be reading this page to gain better understanding of your own memories, or lack of memories of (suspected) sexual abuse in childhood. Or you may have questions about whether remembering child abuse experiences can improve your life. If so, please take the time to read this entire section (about three printed pages). At its end I suggest a book with effective tools for managing painful and unpredictable memories, and link to more information on the stages of recovery and how to find professional help.
For those who find this section particularly helpful, it can be downloaded as a PDF file. for easier printing.
- People who read this web page sometimes have questions like these:
"How can I find someone to hypnotize me?" "How can I know for sure whether I was abused?" It is natural that people ask these questions, particularly given how the popular media present these issues. It is more helpful, however, to step back and look at the bigger picture.
- "How can I recover (more) memories?"
"What do I hope that recovering memories will do for me?" "Why do I wish I could know for sure whether I was abused?" "What problems and suffering in my life now do I believe will be changed by remembering abuse?" These are extremely important questions. They go to the heart of who you are, your deepest hopes, and your current struggles. There are no right or wrong answers. The point is that, first, you need to better understand your current problems, and to clarify what you want to achieve for yourself and your life. This must come before learning about whether recovering memories might be helpful. Who knows, maybe recovering memories could help you. But this is not the key to healing the effects of child abuse and having a better life, and what you hope to gain by recovering memories is usually better achieved in other ways. Remembering how you got through painful experiences, with whatever strengths and resources you had at the time, is usually much more helpful than remembering details of abuse. This is understood by the experts on these issues, and by any therapist qualified to help people heal from painful childhoods. Healing from the effects of abuse is a process that takes place in stages. and the point of the first stage is not about recovering memories, or even focusing on the contents of the memories you already have. The first stage of healing and recovery, and any helpful therapy or counseling, is about:
- "Why do I want to recover (more) memories?"
Establishing safety and stability in your body, your relationships, and the rest of your life. Tapping into and developing your own inner strengths and all the resources potentially available to you. Learning how to regulate your emotions and manage symptoms that make you feel unsafe or cause suffering. Developing and strengthening skills for managing painful memories and other experiences, and minimizing unhelpful responses. Of course, everything is not always so perfectly ordered and sequential. During the first stage of recovery, it may be necessary to discuss the contents of memories that are disrupting your life. This may be
- Getting a "road map" of the healing process, including the possible stages and the most helpful approaches to memories at each stage.
required, for example, to help you manage them, or to understand why you find it is hard to care for yourself (the abuser communicated that you were unworthy of care or love, etc.). However, in this case addressing memories is not the focus of therapy, but a means to achieving safety, stability and greater ability to take care of yourself. Therefore, here are two more important questions that you need to answer, which will require more research and, in most cases, consultation with a qualified professional:
"What skills and capacities must I develop to manage the memories I already have - so that I can make sense of them or address any new memories that might emerge?" Only after establishing a solid foundation of understanding, self-regulation skills, and safety and stability in one's life should one decide - freely, thoughtfully, mindful of the dangers - whether or not to focus on memories of abuse in order to, for example, place them into a larger understanding of one's life and identity. In fact, once such a foundation is in place, some people realize that thinking and talking about their abuse memories is not necessary to achieve their life goals, and that those memories are no longer of interest to them. (And sometimes people need to educate their therapists about this!) For those who do need to focus on abuse memories, or decide that this could be helpful, making sense of what happened and how it fits into one's life story is part of a second stage of recovery, sometimes referred to as "remembrance and mourning." ("Mourning" refers to working through grief about the remembered abuse and its negative effects, grief about good experiences one didn't have and, for some, grief about not even being able to remember important experiences. However, this may not be necessary either.) It is true that, for some people, focusing on the contents of abuse memories, including recovered memories, can be part of a second stage of the healing process. (Again, for some people this may not be necessary and may not be something they are interested in doing.) For those who do choose to explore their memories, several important cautionary points should be kept in mind:
- "What must I learn before discussing or "working through" abuse memories could help to improve my current life and help me achieve future goals?"
"Digging for memories," or trying to force abuse memories to emerge, is almost never a helpful approach, and can cause a great deal of harm. This can cause increased distress and confusion, and behaviors that are harmful to oneself and important relationships (including false memories and mistaken accusations). Attempting to recover abuse memories using hypnosis or other mind-altering techniques is almost never a good idea. The risk of creating very distorted or outright false memories is increased by such methods. Even focusing on abuse memories one already has, without proper preparation, will almost always increase distress, instability and self-destructiveness. Though new memories may emerge during the course of therapy, and managing and making sense of such memories can be part of the healing process, recovering memories of abuse should never be the focus, or even a goal, of therapy or counseling. Finally, here are a few more things to consider:
- If abuse memories do not emerge spontaneously, this may be due to healthy and protective psychological "defense mechanisms."
There is a danger of constructing a personal identity, or reinforcing a sense of self, that is too identified with, too constricted by, and too focused on being a "victim" or "survivor." Intellectual learning, therapy, and many other activities and relationships can help people heal from harmful effects of child abuse, including help people deal with troubling memories. But if improving of one's current life and creating a better future take a back seat to exploring the past, healing will be slowed down, and may even be prevented. If you want to start learning and practicing the self-regulation skills essential to dealing with traumatic memories and the first stage of recovery, I strongly recommend this book: Growing Beyond Survival: A Self-Help Toolkit for Managing Traumatic Stress , by Elizabeth Vermilyea. To learn more and/or order it directly from the publisher (for a higher price than Amazon), go to the Growing Beyond Survival page of the Sidran Press catalog.
- No matter how much abuse someone has experienced, or how complete her or his memories are, there is always much more to that person than "abuse victim" or "abuse survivor."
To learn more about the potential stages of recovery from traumatic child abuse, and how to find competent professional help, see the About Recovery & Therapy section of my Child Abuse web page
If you found this section particularly helpful, you can download it as a PDF file. for easy printing.
Empirical Evidence, Psychological Constructs & Scientific Progress
Reading this brief introduction will make it much easier to benefit from the rest of the information on this page.
Physical evidence of assaults, corroboration from witnesses, and confessions by perpetrators are empirical evidence. When it comes to research on recovered child abuse memories, there IS empirical evidence of this kind, though a lot less than of the next type.
The things people say about their abuse memories, including how they respond to researchers' questions these are empirical evidence too. Of course, these kinds of data are not necessarily about objective events, nor conclusive evidence that abuse occurred. But they are the only evidence we have about people's memories for abuse experiences (real, imagined, or some mixture of the two).
Both of these forms of evidence are extremely important, and people on all sides of the recovered memories debate acknowledge that what people say about their memories is one kind of empirical evidence, and one worth researching (whether or not a person has physical proof or corroboration from others).
Scientists try to understand and explain empirical evidence by using theoretical constructs. that is, ideas devised to integrate systematically a group of related observations or phenomena in a useful way.
Constructs should not be confused with empirical evidence. Constructs should not be considered actual things, events, processes, or experiences. Rather, constructs are conceptual tools. They are conceptual tools that focus our attention on certain things, events, processes, and experiences and help us try to make sense of them. But every construct directs our attention away from certain phenomena too, and can make it harder for us to notice and understand some empirical evidence.
Therefore, when we are dealing with complex phenomena which we do not fully understand like memories of child abuse we must not get too attached to any one construct whether it's "forgetting," "amnesia," "repression" or "dissociation." Otherwise we'll surely overlook important data, and fool ourselves into thinking we understand when we don't.
Just as important, before drawing firm conclusions about a controversial issue like recovered memories we should be familiar with the various constructs used to describe and explain the empirical evidence including constructs used by those who have studied it the most. Otherwise we leave ourselves highly vulnerable to being confused and misled.
Child Abuse Memories:
Empirical Evidence, Psychological Constructs & Scientific Progress It is not rare for people to say they don't remember an abuse experience that actually happened. It is not rare for people to report that there were times when they didn't remember an abuse experience that they remember now. When people say these things, we try to describe and explain what they are reporting with psychological constructs : "amnesia" "repression" "dissociation" Four crucial points:
"Repression" and "dissociation" are explanatory constructs. They point to hypothesized psychological mechanisms that may be responsible for the condition of amnesia. All constructs exist on a continuum from descriptive to explanatory. When it comes to empirical evidence of traumatic and recovered memories, dissociation is more descriptive of more empirical evidence than is repression. The persistence and the accuracy of a memory are completely separate issues, and not keeping them separate as constructs leads to considerable confusion. People can have memories that are largely true or largely false whether or not those memories have been recovered or continuously available. Thus it is very misleading to discuss "recovered versus false memories of abuse" or present these as mutually exclusive categories. It is not rare for people to say that at some point they came to remember a past abuse experience which they had not previously remembered. When people say things along these lines, again we use psychological constructs as we strive to describe and explain what happened to them: "She recovered a memory." "Before beginning therapy, the patient experienced delayed recall." "Some research subjects had a return of previously repressed memories." "Some subjects in the study made new associative linkages among dissociated memory fragments, and integrated these with their conscious, verbal and narrative autobiographical memories." In short, we use psychological constructs to describe and explain people's inabilities to remember and their recovered memories of child abuse which are far too varied and complex to be captured by any one construct alone. And we use separate constructs to describe memories on a continuum from continuous to recovered, and a continuum from accurate to inaccurate.
- "Amnesia" is a descriptive construct. It directs our attention to the condition of being unable to remember experiences like childhood sexual abuse.
As noted above, no matter which constructs we use, we should never confuse constructs with empirical evidence. And no matter which constructs we prefer, this does not change the empirical evidence we already have (though our constructs can influence our interpretations of it). Finally, better constructs lead to better research questions and methods, better empirical evidence, better interpretations of evidence and still-better constructs. That's the self-perpetuating process of scientific progress, of course. This Web page documents scientific progress by those who study child abuse memories:
Significant progress has occurred in how such empirical evidence is described and explained in ways that do not confuse and mislead people, particularly in shifting from "repression" to more descriptive constructs like dissociation and explanatory constructs from cognitive science and neuroscience.
- A substantial body of empirical evidence of amnesia and delayed recall for abuse has existed for years .
Hypertext Table of Research Findings
Amnesia and delayed recall for sexual abuse experiences are NOT rare. This table presents published research studies on whether some people with histories of child sexual abuse experience periods of amnesia and delayed recall.
This is a HYPERTEXT table: Click on authors' names to go directly to abstracts of their studies; then click on your browser's "Back" button to come back to the table.
Methodological notes: 1) Data from "community" samples are more representative than data from "clinical" samples; community samples represent the general population, while clinical ones represent people in mental health treatment. 2) "Prospective" studies are better than "retrospective" ones; in the former, researchers follow and later question confirmed people with abuse histories, while the latter rely on subjects' reports of past abuse. 3) Each of these studies has some methodological flaws or limitations, but their relative consistency strongly suggests that these findings are not spurious.
A note on this table's limited scope: The table below presents only a small selection of studies. As early as 1997, Scheflin and Brown's review of the scientific research on recovered memories of sexual abuse (see next section) could present a table of 25 studies every single one of which found periods of total and/or partial amnesia in a subpopulation of people with histories of sexual abuse.
Selected Studies of Amnesia and Delayed Recall for Experiences of Childhood Sexual Abuse
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